Of the many heartfelt reactions to Monday’s tragedy in Boston, one written by comedian Patton Oswalt seemed to really resonate. You’ve probably already seen it: It was shared on Facebook over 200,000 times, “liked” over 300,000 times, and written about on websites from The Atlantic to US Weekly.
There’s a lot to like about Oswalt’s message, but there’s one aspect of it that really bothers me: When he refers to the unknown perpetrators of the crime, he refers to either “one human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.” It’s just a throwaway line—it doesn’t really affect the substance of what Oswalt is saying. But it’s a telling line that reveals a problem with the way we conceive of tragedies like this attack.
It’s easy and very tempting to dehumanize the people who plant bombs and attack children—to call them “insects” and “sociopaths”* or whatever term that paints them as some mythical bad guy. After all, how could anyone do something this horrible unless he was subhuman in some way? But it’s a dangerous logical trap to assume that anyone who does an evil thing is an Evil Man.
*Of course, the word “sociopath” has the added problem of insulting those people with actual mental health problems, the vast majority of whom, it’s worth pointing out, do NOT commit outrageous acts of violence. It’s true that in many cases there is evidence that perpetrators are sociopaths in the literal sense of the word (though this is rarely conclusive), but throwing around words like “crazy” or “unhinged” or “insane” to describe anyone we don’t like warps the meaning of those words.
This is dangerous because it very quickly leads to the corollary that if someone is not an Evil Man, then what he does is not evil. This is how people come to excuse horrible things. For example, yesterday people were quick to call bombs that targeted first responders “evil.” Of course, the U.S. government now does this routinely in its drone program, but there is no similar outcry because few Americans believe members of the CIA or the military are Evil Men.
But this is what leads to heinous acts of violence in the first place. People tend to excuse otherwise inexcusable behavior when they respect the people involved. This can make an American tolerate his country’s use of drones in Yemen, and it can make Muslims excuse acts of terror against the West. If we want to break this cycle of violence we need to accept that “good people” are capable of doing terrible things, and that the moral value of something is not determined by who does it.
Which brings me back to Oswalt’s message, and the way it divides the world into “the good” and the “human insects.” His point is that “the good” vastly outnumber these “insects,” but this dividing line between the two is not just dangerous but imaginary. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Those people in the videos running toward the wreckage to help are obviously heroes. But they are also people—people who cheat on their spouses, or who don’t recycle, or who watch Honey Boo-Boo, or who say “literally” when they mean “figuratively.” This “darkness” Oswalt talks about is not some mysterious thing that only exists in others—it’s something everyone is capable of, and remembering that is the only way to stop it.